tv review: 'russian doll' season 2
Natasha Lyonne in Russian Doll: Season 2 (2022)
For a show so deliberately repetitive in its genesis, and now back for more, Russian Doll never suffers the ramifications of being tiresome. Quite the opposite is achieved. The brain child of Natasha Lyonne (who stars, writes, directs, produces, and is one of three creators) is just as invigorating in its second season. Following the success of the first, which sees main character Nadia (Lyonne) as defiant and self-destructive, season two of Russian Doll delves deeper into the personal history she carries around. Set 4 years after being forced to relive her 36th birthday party, Nadia is now on the cusp of 40, when questions of family history and bruised paternal relationships emerge in a pause for self-evaluation. Having escaped one strange time loop, Nadia has fallen into another entirely, now through an unexpected portal in one of Manhattan’s most recognized places. The idea of playing around with time loops, throwing in different destinations that Nadia is able to experience, keeps Russian Doll on track as an ever-expanding journey. As a follow-up to a critically revered first season, Lyonne brings back that intoxicating cocktail of spirit and pathos for a new adventure spanning eras and generations. Season two of Russian Doll introduces a far more introspective train of thought, with enough staying power to keep you mentally onboard for the entire ride. Hold onto your Metrocards!
Instead of relying on its mind-bending time travel concept to do the narrative heavy lifting, the show’s trio of creators (Lyonne along with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland) have clearly explored how they can use the sci-fi elements to build on storytelling. They don’t have the ‘lighting in a bottle’ effect of the first season, which they wisely treat as a one-time occurrence and steer clear of chasing it for recreation. With a commitment to finding new ways of expanding the material, season two of Russian Doll is a lot more ambitious and existentially weighty this time around. The 7 episodes play like an accordion, expansive and collapsible in how plot unfolds. Lyonne reprises her role as Nadia Vulvokov, a spirited New Yorker who finds herself stuck in a time loop in season one when forced to relive her 36th birthday over and over again. It’s a loop even mortality cannot break; after dying multiple times in a day, she bounces back to her repetitive stare in front of a bathroom mirror, wondering what the hell is going on. As fate would have it, Nadia eventually meets Alan (a role reprised by Charlie Barnett), another character stuck in a death loop. The two connect and, in attempting to piece their experiences together, they realize that the loop started because both characters were in a self-destructive mode. So, in the end they vow to help each other find a way out of this wild purgatory. Are they successful? Season two is set 4 years later, with both characters having resigned themselves to repeating the same day, every day.
Season two goes deeper into the personal family history that Nadia and Alan are respectively carrying around like a weight. The new portal into another time loop gives them the opportunity to patch what Nadia calls unfinished business. But like any sort of retrospective into one’s past, one can only hope that the recipient of the history lesson will come out the other side learning more about themselves. What philosophical questions season one sets up through sharp writing and a soulful lead performance, season two uses as building blocks to push its protagonist further into the unknown. The story feels a lot more transcendent and ambitious in where it ends up. Sometimes it feels like a different show in comparison to the first season. But some things never change, one of which being the level of compassion for the characters and themes. From the efforts of the creators, to Lyonne herself playing the lead, Russian Doll continues to bring humanity and empathy for those who are struggling with mental health. While also, shining a light on the importance of thoughtful care. The show’s use of time portals is a great way of emphasizing the intergenerational differences in how mental health was treated through time.
Although the show doesn’t quite devote enough time (heh) to fleshing out such characters from the past, including Nadia’s mother (played by Chloë Sevigny). With a grander scope as the playing field, certain plot points and characters fall by the wayside. It seems as though Adam is forgotten along the way; the show quickly switches to his perspective every now and then as a reminder that he’s still part the story. His connection to Nadia holds far more intrigue in the first season and, while he gets his own new time loop subplot, there feels to be a disconnect between the two characters that contradicts whether they’re meant to intersect or not. And as a massive Schitt’s Creek fan, advertising Annie Murphy proves to be the ultimate tease given she doesn’t get a lot of screen time. But of course, she shines on anyway. Then there is the MVP of Russian Doll, the one and only Natasha Lyonne. Nadia has a compelling character arc throughout the 7 new episodes, and it gives Lyonne plenty of moments to shine. She continues to bring this spirited character to life with quick wit, an endless source of energy, and an emotional gut punch when the time calls for one. Above all, as her character goes on this intergenerational journey of finding certain remnants from the past, she becomes a reminder of what is important to value.
Existential questions about one’s value, and what one values in life, swirl in this twisty world Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland have created. The strength that Russian Doll plays to this season is taking a concept designed to be repetitive and, rather than catch lightning in a bottle twice, takes the ambitious path of trying to make sense of it all. Season two expands on the surrealist possibilities that its predecessor introduces, and finds a new story to tell in all the empty space. As vocalized towards the end of the season, there is so much empty space around us, we’ve forgotten it’s there. It’s a wonder the whole thing doesn’t cave in. The creators of Russian Doll are mindful of that space, particularly when it comes to family matters. For many, there is so much unresolved trauma, unfinished business floating in the space created by what’s left unsaid between people. This takes a lifetime to unpack, and whichever steps are taken to get even close to understanding, the direction looks a lot more like a zigzag than a linear one. With each new movement, comes a slightly deeper perception about one's self. It seems only fitting that the final episode of Russian Doll stirs up feelings of unfinished business and completeness, simultaneously. Season two is an ambitious journey through the concept of time that serves as an emotional reminder, one cannot escape from what cannot be changed.
Tim Roth in Sundown (2022)
Sundown, written and directed by Michel Franco, unfolds around the magnetism of Tim Roth. The actor plays protagonist Neil Bennett, a character seemingly detached from his surroundings from the start. He is introduced in paradise, spending time with family at a secluded resort in Acapulco. There is something about his presence that feels he is lightyears away from where he is physically, as if he is not existing at all. A distant emergency disrupts the vacation, but this news quickly fades into oblivion given where the story progresses. His family: sister Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her children Colin (Samuel Bottomley) and Alexa (Albertine Kotting McMillan), appear to be tight-knit. Together upon hearing the news, they don’t think twice about packing and heading for the airport. Neil trails behind with uninhibited demeanor, nonchalantly realizing he’s forgotten his passport and ensures the family fly home without him. Neil’s intentions and reasoning for his actions to follow are tricky to understand, but it is Roth’s knowing gaze that invites curiosity beyond else to see this performance (and this film) through to the end. It is no easy feat to play a character whose emotions are more hidden, and Roth does so with a gut-punch reminder of why he’s such a great actor. For Sundown benefits greatly from a towering talent at the center who can create a simmering tension by way of aura alone. Without uttering any explanation for all the questions his actions conjure up, Roth casts a relaxed spell on this existential puzzle of a story.
Sundown takes a slow-build look at the rising tensions within a wealthy British family, of which Neil is part of. Much like this protagonist who doesn’t seem to be thinking twice, fleeing from one decision to another, the film moves at a measured pace matching the energy he carries. The distant emergency that cuts the Bennett family vacation short is just one of a series of bleak events. Michel Franco does well to frame the story around Neil and his perspective, which itself is shrouded in mystery. Sometimes the director pushes too far into vagueness and starts to lose grip of a story to tell, but Roth’s performance is a strong enough core to anchor the long contemplative takes. The protagonist running away from confronting the cause and effect of his actions makes watching this film consistently unexpected. By the end, Franco’s screenplay reveals a puzzle left unfinished. Sundown sparks conversation around the human urge to be someplace different, to change your surroundings. Neil acts on this urge, though what is most interesting to watch is the space in between his past life and the life he wants elsewhere. It’s the perpetual state of not just being lost, but losing what you had. Those moments of Neil in utter silence and hard-to-read are the most memorable.
Sometimes a film comes along where the collaborative magic between an actor and director is felt so strongly. The trust in Tim Roth to lead this journey, holding the key to what makes you feel so inclined for answers and yet kind of pleased not to know, is well-placed. The restraint with which this character leaves one life behind to start another is startling to process. Neil makes awful choices, painful ones that are consequential for his family, especially his sister Alice who is left shellshocked by what has transpired. Charlotte Gainsbourg has the more heightened emotional scenes of the two; she expertly conveys her character’s frustration and the pain of being left behind in the blink of an eye. One scene of an aloof Neil asking Alice to dinner so nonchalantly, after everything that happened between them, is a standout moment indicating just how unnerving it is to watch the consequences of his actions without accountability. Especially when not knowing the thought process behind it all.
The unsettled disposition of Neil Bennett calls into memory the protagonist of another recent film: Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman) in The Lost Daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel. Albeit, they find themselves at different stages of making difficult choices with familial consequences. While Leda is confronting years-long memories, Neil is fresh in the wake of his decisions. Whoever you think Neil is at sunrise, his character is painted in an entirely new light by sundown, and the pattern repeats. There is more to the character than meets the eye. Tim Roth does a fantastic job of revealing just enough to maintain mystery, without giving too much sway towards a definite conclusion. With impressive restraint in Franco’s direction, matched by Roth’s played-down performance, Sundown shines as a thought-provoking story of a human being in perpetual search not necessarily for something better, but for an awakening from his slumber. Someplace where the warmth of the sun will be there to greet him without interference.
Catch Sundown at the TIFF Bell Lightbox starting April 8.